Once an amusement mecca for working-class New Yorkers, immortalized on film in Paul Fejos’ “Lonesome” and Harold Lloyd’s “Speedy,” Coney Island now receives a cinematic lament for its populist demise in “Zipper.” The title refers to a Coney Island ride, a homey focal point in the big-money battle raging around it, as Amy Nicholson’s pic joins a long procession of Gotham documentaries chronicling the transformation of viable, affordable, idiosyncratic neighborhoods into generic high-rise enclaves for the rich. Uniquely accessing an endless flow of rampant hypocrisy, the Aug. 9 release should amuse audiences even as it horrifies.
Nicholson’s film admirably maintains a split focus. On one hand are the ride and its owner, operators and happily screaming patrons. On other are the big-city politicos and real-estate interests who will determine the Zipper’s fate. The director’s double vision establishes a level of equality on film that in some ways defies the disparity in power between the two opposing forces.
Whereas usually in New York-based documentaries, city officials are shown to be in bed with real-estate interests, here they are locked in all-out combat, at least initially. Real-estate mogul Joe Sitt, CEO of Thor and self-proclaimed protector of Coney Island (he even displays a framed T-shirt to prove it), buys up property, only to drive out businesses and attractions. He turns the hitherto-flourishing area (graphics show its dramatic rise in popularity just before the buyout) into a desolate no-man’s-land of empty lots, hoping to blackmail the city into changing the area’s amusement park-specific zoning.
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City officials decry Sitt’s proposed sketches for a Six Flags-style park, though their own grandiose plans look remarkably similar. In a series of interviews, Nicholson shoots one politician after another earnestly stressing his love of Coney Island’s lovable carny atmosphere, vowing to preserve its core funkiness while “upgrading” the area. Yet soon they are heard complaining that there’s no local Applebee’s where they can take their kids — and where could they hold a bar mitzvah? The whole idea of a “people’s beach” with simple fairground attractions apparently runs counter to any notion of development.
Area residents parade in protest, dressed in mermaid or Neptune outfits and carrying giant sticks of cotton candy; at other times, they sit quietly holding signs in council meetings whose conclusions are sadly foregone. Eddie Miranda, proud owner of the Zipper, speaks of growing up in Coney Island and the emotional attachment he and his operators feel to the classic attraction (the fact that the shake-’em-up ride tends to shower coins and small objects on the ground, there for the taking, provides an added benefit). Customers scream bloody murder and come back for more; for many, including the director, the ride is a longtime favorite.
Early on, Nicholson travels to a Wichita factory to film a Zipper being assembled, a rare piece of machinery made in America. Later, she follows Miranda’s Zipper as it is packed up and sent to Honduras, where a new clientele is seen experiencing its thrills.